Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Run Time: 153 mins
The Last Duel is the latest from director Ridley Scott, who shows no signs of slowing down despite being in his eighties. Outside of the sci-fi genre where Scott has garnered most acclaim, this is a historical epic where he is also well-experienced with films such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings. These films have varied in quality with Kingdom of Heaven in particular proving a chore to get through.
Set in France in 1386, The Last Duel details the background to the final legally sanctioned judicial duel, of which the victor is seen as determined by God. The titular duel is between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who he had once saved in battle. Their quarrel is over an accusation of Le Gris raping de Carrouge’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), Le Gris vehemently denying the crime. The rape is the final blow to their friendship, after de Carrouges is unhappy that he has lost land that he feels is rightfully his that is gifted to Le Gris and he also loses his Captain promotion to him.
Should de Carrouges lose the duel, not only will his life be lost but also his wife’s, Marguerite, as she will be burned at the stake as Le Gris will be seen as the victor chosen by God. Scott elects to tell the gripping story in a Rashomon structure from the perspectives of the two duellists and Marguerite before we then witness the duel.
Screenwriting duties are by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, their first writing reunion since Good Will Hunting, with the latter also starring in the film as the drunken and greedy Count Pierre D’Allencon. Damon and Affleck have drafted in Nicole Holofcener, chiefly to write Marguerite’s telling to provide a specifically female voice.
The Last Duel has a lot of positive aspects, in particular the fascinating and ambitious narrative concept of its Rashomon structure. We witness the same events from different perspectives and audience allegiances are challenged when we see conflicting accounts. The first two perspectives from the duellists are where the film is best, as they directly compliment each other. I found it particularly intelligent how Matt Damon’s performance changes between his account, where he presents himself as a stable and patriotic individual to Le Gris’ perspective of him where he is an embarrassing and oafish presence. The final perspective from Marguerite is also insightful in that women are regarded solely for transactional purposes. It’s interesting that many viewers have cited her telling as the ultimate truth but I think it is far more nuanced in that we don’t witness certain scenes of the film that the first two chapters highlight, invoking that even she isn’t as innocent as she presents herself. The culminating duel is fantastically realised by Scott and is an intense and bloody spectacle that ranks as one of his best set pieces.
There are some gripping performances. Matt Damon is the highlight here with his excellent versatility of varying his performance according to the character account. Driver is also convincing and is an unlikeable screen presence and I found it easy to root against him. Comer is convincing as the silenced and judged Marguerite and Affleck is clearly having fun as the pompous Count with bleached blonde hair.
The Last Duel is not without its flaws and I would argue that its concept has far more promise than the end result. Firstly, it is overlong despite covering lots of content. Scott never really allows the film the opportunity to breathe. It is typically workmanlike for the director and brisk in sections, which makes it emotionally distant. Scott revels in portraying the period detail and bloody battles with temporal weather. Although visually spectacular, they are largely irrelevant for the narrative and make the film feel like it’s running through a history lesson rather than the central thread of the question its posing of the truth.
The script is also problematic in that it is frequently on-the-nose. Character exchanges don’t feel natural and the script lacks subtlety. In conjunction with the period milieu, the film veers dangerously close to parody at times.
Although flawed and not as strong in execution as its concept, The Last Duel is a very interesting offering from Ridley Scott. The film works best in its first two chapters as the two characters align together more than with Marguerite, even if her rape is the event in question that leads to the duel. The performances are also worth the time with Damon and Affleck playing against type. A brisker pacing, less focus on the period timeline and a sharper script would have really elevated the film. The cut that Scott has ultimately released is a fascinating narrative that with some improvements is something that is very close to being extraordinary.